If you read a Barack Obama speech, you notice that, aside from the we-are-the-ones-we’ve-been-waiting -for narcissistic uplift and the Washington-needs-to-lift-people-up-not tear-them down bromides, almost everything he says is, well, nuts.
I don’t mean the moments when he gets carried away and announces that his administration would “stop the import of all toys from China.” As it happens, that’s a policy I’m not unsympathetic to. Almost 80 percent of American toys are made in the People’s Republic and, while that may well be appropriate given the whiff of totalitarian coerciveness that hangs around Barney the Dinosaur, I can’t say I’m entirely comfortable with contracting out U. S. innocence to the butchers of Tiananmen. For one thing, come the Sino-American War, Beijing will have the ultimate fifth column inside the West: The nation’s moppets, resentful at having their Elmos and SpongeBobs cut off for the duration, will be shinning down the drainpipe after dark in ski masks and blowing up power stations to hasten the day of liberation.
But forget that. Worse than the painting-by-numbers demagoguery are some of the accidental glimpses of the senator’s worldview. For example: “The drug companies, they’re not going to give up their profits easily when it comes to health care.”
Well, gee, how unreasonable of them. But demanding they give up their profits “easily” comes easy to him. Until he wrote his recent bestsellser, the concept of “profits” was entirely theoretical to Obama’s life. As his wife put it, the Obamas “left corporate America, which is a lot of what we’re asking young people to do. Don’t go into corporate America.” So Barack didn’t. Instead, he became a “community organizer,” whatever that is. It would make no difference to life in the great republic if every “community organizer” in the lower 48 were deposited on an atoll in the Antarctic. On the other hand, if America’s drug companies were no longer profitable, it might make rather a lot of difference.
In print, Barack Obama comes as close as any major-party nominee ever has to sounding like the kookiest college Marxist. But, as I say, that’s when you read his words. When you hear him, in that smooth baritone that would make “Would you like fries with that?” sound like change you can believe in, everything is terribly reasonable, moderate, evenly modulated.
I was thinking of the Obama technique while watching his campaign’s in-house pastor on TV. The senator had found himself obliged to plead that, alas, he’d chanced to be out of town for God Damn America Sunday, AIDS Conspiracy Sunday, and the American Had It Coming 9/11 Memorial Service, and defenders of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright had offered the reflexive response that his controversial remarks had been taken out of “context.” So the reverend supplied the context. He went to the NAACP and the National Press Club, and CNN & Co. broadcast the speeches live under the bizarre misapprehension that this was doing their man Barack a favor. Wright did impressions of the Kennedys and demonstrated the differing styles of black and white marching bands, attributing these to genetic differences: Blacks are “right-brainers,” while whites are “left-brainers.” Blacks have a vibrant oral tradition deriving from long-ago African tribesmen who were in effect the first hip-hoppers, while Mozart wrote down his symphonies on manuscript paper, which is all very well but, let’s face it, the powdered-wig set have no sense of rhythm.
I paraphrase, but not much. Underpinning every utterance of Reverend Wright was the assumption that these features are hardwired into us and no amount of culture or education can undo them. Presumably no amount of government money or employment quotas can undo them either, although the reverend didn’t go that far. Had a white man gone on national TV and given the speeches Wright gave, he’d be finished in public life, and so would any man who’d been dumb enough to spend 20 years in his company, get married by him, and entrust his kids’ religious upbringing to the guy.
As it happens, honky culture is also rich in oral tradition – Homer, for example, not to mention medieval nursery rhymes still known to every kid in the early 21st century. Of course, the white man then figured the big bucks were in writing things down and hiring a lawyer to enforce your copyright. But the idea that black artists are conditioned by their “oral tradition” to half-baked hoodlum exhibitionism barked over a pneumatic backing track would have struck, say, Scott Joplin as absurd. Duke Ellington has more in common with Ravel than with Snoop Dog.
But the best refutation of Wright’s thesis is his protege. Were Obama carrying on in his pastor’s vernacular tradition, he’d be at single digits. I think the senator’s shaping up to be a tragic figure – a man born free of the bitterness of the black experience who by choice immersed himself in the toxic pool of Jeremiah Wright’s neo-segregationism. When Obama’s mask slips and he makes his throwaway observations about health-care profits, you glimpse the narrowness of the world in which he’s spent his adult life. But political candidacies are about the music more than the lyrics. And when he opens his mouth to sing, Obama’s baritone is reassuring and mellifluous, and the accompaniment beautifully orchestrated. Tonally, he’s the Nat King Cole of political candidates – which suggests he at least knows the limitations of Jeremiah Wright’s wacky race theories on vernacular authenticity.